Air shipping or sea shipping – which is better for the environment?

Every Friday, we answer a common question about fulfillment, shipping, or business. This week’s question comes from one of the fans who entered our giveaway contest for a copy of the board game Gloomhaven. Today we will answer the following question: “air shipping or sea shipping – which is better for the environment?”

 

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This is a great question. It’s said that freight transportation accounts for 7% of all emissions worldwide. When you think about the sheer amount of greenhouse gases and other pollutants being released into the environment in the process of shipping products, it’s only sensible to want to keep that in check.

We’re going to talk about how you do that, but first, we’re going to cover the two main forms of shipping that are available when you’re shipping large amounts of items over long distances. They are: air shipping and sea shipping.

 

How Air Shipping Works

In a nutshell, air shipping involves loading up cargo planes and transporting goods rapidly across the globe. It’s very fast, it’s very reliable, and it’s also very expensive.

Air shipping, unfortunately, comes with baggage, a lot of which is environmental. For example, freight transportation accounts for 7% of all emissions worldwide, in terms of kilograms of freight to kilograms of carbon dioxide.

This, of course, is not a good look for air shipping. But don’t dismiss it as a pollution powerhouse yet. The truth is more nuanced. After all, when was the last time an airplane dumped a bunch of oil into the ocean?

 

How Sea Shipping Works

That takes us to sea shipping. Shipping by sea is typically slower, much cheaper, and reliable – although less so than air shipping. Fortunately, sea shipping releases a lot fewer emissions than air shipping. Like we said earlier, air shipping releases 63 times the emissions when transporting goods of the same weight over the same distance.

So sea shipping is better for the environment, right? Case closed!

Not quite…

 

Which is better for the environment?

As you might expect, this is an incredibly nuanced question.

Now, yes, generally, sea shipping can be thought of as more environmentally friendly. This is an indisputable fact if you consider only CO2 emissions released during the transportation process. However, there’s more than one way to pollute the planet and CO2 emissions are not just released during freight transportation.

For example, some pharmaceuticals will spoil if transported long distances by sea. The manufacturing process for those pharmaceuticals creates a lot of CO2, thus replacing the spoiled cargo will cause more CO2 to be released into the atmosphere. In a case like this, sea shipping is worse for the environment than air shipping.

Of course, that’s only considering CO2. Even just a quick look at the Wikipedia page for the “environmental impact of shipping” will show that the waters on this question are literally muddy.

 

Final Thoughts

If you’re shipping with the environment in mind, pause to think about how the choice between air shipping and sea shipping will impact the environment. For most people, sea shipping is the logical choice, but if your products spoil quickly or you’re especially worried about ocean pollution, air shipping may very well be the better choice.

 

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